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  • A few years ago, I was in Busan, South Korea, leading a workshop for actors as part of the Busan International Theatre Festival. I found myself there a bit by accident, chance and luck. A rather famous playwright who I have never met in person, but knew from an e-list he ran that I was a member of, suggested to the festival that I would be a good workshop leader. I don't know why he recommended me, or what made him think of me, but I was flattered and delighted that chance and luck would be the levers that brought me to Korea for the first time.

    I love exploring new places, so whenever I was in the studio working with the actors I was wandering around sections of Busan under the guidance of my lively and entertaining translator (Emma was her 'english name. I loved the way she said 'robby' instead of 'lobby'. It took me a few days to understand that I was supposed to meet her in the 'lobby' not in the 'robby' wherever that was.) As a food enthusiast, I asked if we could go to a market one day. Emma, being ever eager to please, took me to a massive fish market where I got to see all manner of live creatures swimming in beach buckets - octopus, cuttlefish, blowfish. The smell was horrendous; it was like a wave of fetid sea washing over us as we walked along the concrete aisles of fish. The few actors from the workshop who came along looked horrified that we were there. I could see there desire to hide this part of Korea from me, in case it caused me to judge the country/people badly.

    After the fish encounter, we wandered to a market that had a mixture of food and clothing/other stuff for sale. There were stands devoted entirely to underwear that had children's characters on them. One stall was only varieties of scissors. Another was filled with baskets of dried sea creatures in various sizes, shapes and smells. We also had more of the incredible street food that I had come to love during the preceding days of my trip (this time I had a fried cuttlefish cake I think).

    While we were walking around, a sudden, loud, screeching siren went off that seemed to come from somewhere very high up. It was so loud that it felt like the whole world must surely be experiencing it at the same time I was. I jumped when it started and immediately asked what we needed to do. Surely this was some horrible sign of emergency that required action. My translator, laughed. "This is just a drill in case North Korea bombs us. Don't worry." I looked around and noticed that no one was changing their course of action at all. Everyone kept at their browsing. "But what happens if it really is an attack? How will you know?" I asked. "Someone will tell us." Was the response. "Someone will tell you?" "Yes. Someone will tell us that it isn't just a drill."

    I wondered why they would have a siren if they needed to be told that the siren was real, but I decided not to push it. The irony of this system's lack of effectiveness didn't seem to register with my hosts. I guess, the alarms probably started out as real drills, where people would really practice evacuating. By now, they must have just woven themselves into the fabric of the everyday. I guess that just happens sometimes: the extraordinary becomes ordinary.
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